Commonly Asked Questions

General questions:

What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

An HIV-positive person receives an AIDS diagnosis after developing one of the CDC-defined AIDS indicator illnesses. An HIV-positive person can also receive an AIDS diagnosis on the basis of certain blood tests (CD4 counts) and may not have experienced any serious illnesses. A positive HIV test does not mean that a person has AIDS. A diagnosis of AIDS is made by a physician according to the CDC AIDS Case Definition.

Over time, infection with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) can weaken the immune system to the point that the system has difficulty fighting off certain infections. These types of infections are known as opportunistic infections. Many of the infections that cause problems or that can be life-threatening for people with AIDS are usually controlled by a healthy immune system. The immune system of a person with AIDS has weakened to the point that medical intervention may be necessary to prevent or treat serious illness.

What is the Difference Between HIV and AIDS?

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.

H
-
Human: because this virus can only infect human beings.
I
-
Immuno-deficiency: because the effect of the virus is to create a deficiency, a failure to work properly, within the body’s immune system.
V
-
Virus: because this organism is a virus, which means one of its characteristics is that it is incapable of reproducing by itself. It reproduces by taking over the machinery of the human cell.
 
 
 
A
-
Acquired: because it’s a condition one must acquire or get infected with; not something transmitted through the genes
I
-
Immune: because it affects the body’s immune system, the part of the body which usually works to fight off germs such as bacteria and viruses
D
-
Deficiency: because it makes the immune system deficient (makes it not work properly)
S
-
Syndrome: because someone with AIDS may experience a wide range of different diseases and opportunistic infections.
How long does it take for HIV to cause AIDS?
Currently, the average time between HIV infection and the appearance of signs that could lead to an AIDS diagnosis is 8-11 years. This time varies greatly from person to person and can depend on many factors including a person’s health status and behaviors. Today there are medical treatments that can slow down the rate at which HIV weakens the immune system. There are other treatments that can prevent or cure some of the illnesses associated with AIDS. As with other diseases, early detection offers more options for treatment and preventative health care.

Symptoms / How I can tell:

How can I tell if I’m infected with HIV?

The only way to determine whether you are infected is to be tested for HIV infection. You can’t rely on symptoms to know whether or not you are infected with HIV. Many people who are infected with HIV don’t have any symptoms at all for many years.
Similarly, you can’t rely on symptoms to establish that a person has AIDS. The symptoms associated with AIDS are similar to the symptoms of many other diseases. AIDS is a diagnosis made by a doctor based on specific criteria established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
 
What are the Symptoms of HIV?

Primary HIV infection is the first stage of HIV disease, when the virus first establishes itself in the body. Some researchers use the term acute HIV infection to describe the period of time between when a person is first infected with HIV and when antibodies against the virus are produced by the body (usually 6- 12 weeks).

Some people newly infected with HIV will experience some “flu-like” symptoms. These symptoms, which usually last no more than a few days, might include fevers, chills, night sweats and rashes (not cold-like symptoms). Other people either do not experience “acute infection,” or have symptoms so mild that they may not notice them.

Given the general character of the symptoms of acute infection, they can easily have causes other than HIV, such as a flu infection. For example, if you had some risk for HIV a few days ago and are now experiencing flu-like symptoms, it might be possible that HIV is responsible for the symptoms, but it is also possible that you have some other viral infection.

What are the Symptoms of AIDS?
There are no common symptoms for individuals diagnosed with AIDS. When immune system damage is more severe, people may experience opportunistic infections (called opportunistic because they are caused by organisms which cannot induce disease in people with normal immune systems, but take the “opportunity” to flourish in people with HIV). Most of these more severe infections, diseases and symptoms fall under the Centers for Disease Control’s definition of full-blown “AIDS.” The median time to receive an AIDS diagnosis among those infected with HIV is 7-10 years.

Transmission / Prevention:

How is HIV Transmitted?

HIV can be transmitted from an infected person to another through:

  • Blood (including menstrual blood)
  • Semen
  • Vaginal secretions
  • Breast milk

Blood contains the highest concentration of the virus, followed by semen, followed by vaginal fluids, followed by breast milk.

* Activities That Allow HIV Transmission

  • Unprotected sexual contact
  • Direct blood contact, including injection drug needles, blood transfusions, accidents in health care settings or certain blood products
  • Mother to baby (before or during birth, or through breast milk)

Sexual intercourse (vaginal and anal): In the genitals and the rectum, HIV may infect the mucous membranes directly or enter through cuts and sores caused during intercourse (many of which would be unnoticed). Vaginal and anal intercourse is a high-risk practice.

Oral sex (mouth-penis, mouth-vagina): The mouth is an inhospitable environment for HIV (in semen, vaginal fluid or blood), meaning the risk of HIV transmission through the throat, gums, and oral membranes is lower than through vaginal or anal membranes. There are however, documented cases where HIV was transmitted orally, so we can’t say that getting HIV-infected semen, vaginal fluid or blood in the mouth is without risk. However, oral sex is considered a low risk practice.

Sharing injection needles: An injection needle can pass blood directly from one person’s bloodstream to another. It is a very efficient way to transmit a blood-borne virus. Sharing needles is considered a high-risk practice.

Mother to Child: It is possible for an HIV-infected mother to pass the virus directly before or during birth, or through breast milk. Breast milk contains HIV, and while small amounts of breast milk do not pose significant threat of infection to adults, it is a viable means of transmission to infants.

Can I get HIV from oral sex?
There is considerable debate within the HIV/AIDS prevention community regarding the risk of transmission of HIV through oral sex. What is currently known is that there is some risk associated with performing oral sex without protection; (there have been a few documented cases of HIV transmission through oral sex). While no one knows exactly what that risk is, cumulative evidence indicates that the risk is less than that of unprotected anal or vaginal sex. The risk from receiving oral sex, for both a man and a woman, is considered to be very low.
Currently, risk reduction options when performing oral sex on a man (fellatio) include the use of latex condoms, but also include withdrawal before ejaculation without a condom (avoiding semen in the mouth) and/or refraining from this activity when cuts or sores are present in the mouth.
When performing oral sex on a woman (cunnilingus), moisture barriers such as a dam (sheet of latex), a cut-open and flattened condom, or household plastic wrap can reduce the risk of exposure to vaginal secretions and/or blood.
Can I get HIV from kissing?
Casual contact through closed-mouth or “social” kissing is not a risk for transmission of HIV. Because of the potential for contact with blood during “French” or open-mouth, wet kissing, CDC recommends against engaging in this activity with a person known to be infected. However, the risk of acquiring HIV during open-mouth kissing is believed to be very low. CDC has investigated only one case of HIV infection that may be attributed to contact with blood during open-mouth kissing. In this case both partners had extensive dental problems including gingivitis (inflammation of the gums). It is likely that there was blood present in both partners’ mouths making direct blood to blood contact a possibility.
Can I get HIV from casual contact (shaking hands, hugging, using a toilet, drinking from the same glass, or the sneezing and coughing of an infected person)?
No. HIV is not transmitted by day to day contact in the home, the workplace, schools, or social settings. HIV is not transmitted through shaking hands, hugging or a casual kiss. You cannot become infected from a toilet seat, a drinking fountain, a doorknob, dishes, drinking glasses, food, or pets.
HIV is a fragile virus that does not live long outside the body. HIV is not an airborne or food borne virus. HIV is present in the blood, semen or vaginal secretions of an infected person and can be transmitted through unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex or through sharing injection drug needles.
How effective are latex condoms in preventing HIV?
Several studies have demonstrated that latex condoms are highly effective in preventing HIV transmission when used correctly and consistently. These studies looked at uninfected people considered to be at very high risk of infection because they were involved in sexual relationships with HIV-infected persons. The studies found that even with repeated sexual contact, 98-100% of those people who used latex condoms consistently and correctly remained uninfected.

Testing:

What if I test HIV positive?

If you test positive, the sooner you take steps to protect your health, the better. Early medical treatment, a healthy lifestyle and a positive attitude can help you stay well. Prompt medical care may delay the onset of AIDS and prevent some life-threatening conditions. It is important to know that a positive HIV test should always be confirmed, to be sure that it is a true positive. If your test result is positive, there are a number of important steps you can take immediately to protect your health:

  • See a doctor, even if you don’t feel sick. Try to find a doctor who has experience treating HIV. There are now many new drugs to treat HIV infection. There are important tests, immunizations and drug treatments that can help you maintain good health. It is never too early to start thinking about treatment possibilities.
  • Have a tuberculosis (TB) test done. You may be infected with TB and not know it. Undetected TB can cause serious illness. TB can be treated successfully if detected early.
  • Recreational drugs, alcoholic beverages and smoking can weaken your immune system. There are programs available to help you stop.
  • Consider joining a support group for people with HIV infection or finding out about other resources available in your area, such as HIV/AIDS-knowledgeable counselors for one on one therapy. There are also many newsletters available for people living with HIV and AIDS.
  • There is much you can do to stay healthy. Learning as much as you can is a step in the right direction. Local and/or national resources may be available. Many HIV/AIDS organizations provide services free or on a sliding scale, based on ability to pay.
How long after a possible exposure should I be tested for HIV?

The time it takes for a person who has been infected with HIV to seroconvert (test positive) for HIV antibodies is commonly called the “Window Period.”

The California Office of AIDS, published in 1998, says about the window period: “When a person is infected with the HIV virus, statistics show that 95-97% (perhaps higher) of all infected individuals develop antibodies within 12 weeks (3-months).”

The National CDC has said that in some rare cases, it may take up to six months for one to seroconvert (test positive). At this point the results would be 99.9% accurate.

* What does this mean for you?

The three-month window period is normal for approximately 95% of the population. If you feel any anxiety about relying on the 3-month result, by all means you should have another test at 6 months.

When do you know for sure that you are not infected with HIV?
The tests commonly used to determine HIV infection actually look for antibodies produced by the body to fight HIV. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people will develop detectable antibodies within 3 months after infection. In rare cases, it can take up to six months. Therefore, the CDC recommends testing at 6 months after the last possible exposure. (unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex or sharing injecting drug needles). It would be extremely rare to take longer than six months to develop detectable antibodies. It is important, during the six months between exposure and the 6-month test, to protect yourself and others from further exposures to HIV.
What is the difference between an Anonymous and a Confidential Test?

Anonymous and Confidential use the same testing method. The only difference is one does not have your name attached to the results.

Anonymous testing means that absolutely no one has access to your test results since your name is never recorded at the test site.

Confidential antibody testing means that you and the health care provider know your results, which may be recorded in your medical file.

What do test results mean?

A positive result means:

  • You are HIV-positive (carrying the virus that causes AIDS).
  • You can infect others and should try to implement precautions to prevent doing so.

A negative result means:

  • No antibodies were found in your blood at this time.

A negative result does NOT mean:

  • You are not infected with HIV (if you are still in the window period).
  • You are immune to AIDS.
  • You have a resistance to infection.
  • You will never get AIDS.
If I test HIV negative does that mean that my partner is HIV negative also?
No. Your HIV test result reveals only your HIV status. Your negative test result does not tell you about the HIV status of your partner(s). HIV is not necessarily transmitted every time there is an exposure.
No one’s test result can be used to determine another person’s HIV status.

I still have more questions. Can I talk to someone?

You most certainly can! You can contact anyone at The Q or ASA. You can also call the CDC National AIDS Hotline at (800) 342-2437 anytime, 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.